Many of us, faced with juggling several competing priorities, wonder how to get more done every day. Parenting, work, keeping house, caring for loved ones, self-care, volunteer or civic activities, church — the demands on our time seem to multiply continually, and yet there are still only 24 hours in the day.
Are You “In the Weeds?”
If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you’ve heard the phrase “in the weeds” to refer to someone who is struggling and falling behind. As in, “The new waitress is in the weeds. Her table waited 20 minutes, then walked out.”
Supposedly the phrase originated during the Prohibition Era when owners of speakeasies would hide liquor in the weeds so police couldn’t find it during a raid. Later, when they went looking for it, they’d have to spend time hunting through the weeds for their bottles while orders backed up and tipplers got impatient.
Many people live in the weeds, running chronically behind and leaving tasks mostly unfinished. Others spend their days in the weeds then stay up as late as necessary to finish their To Do list only to find themselves so exhausted the next morning they can’t accomplish anything more.
And some folks feel like they’re productive but, come bedtime, find they’d been in the weeds all day and now can’t sleep thanks to the Guilt Parade going on in their heads.
How Do “Those People” Do It?
Then there are those people who manage to roll out of bed well rested in the morning and spend their day ticking tasks off their lists one after the other. Somehow those people manage to cram more in one day than others do in a week, so when evening comes, you’ll often find them doing one thing we’d all like to do more of — relaxing.
How do they do it? They know how to get more done every day, habits that those in the weeds haven’t adapted yet. I know, because I’m one of those people who got out of the weeds and have, ever since, amazed myself with how productive my days can be.
Now it’s your turn.
How To Get More Done Every Day
1. Think forward. A sure-fire way to get in the weeds is by letting your day happen to you. To take charge of your time, you need to plan how you’ll use it — that means making the next day’s To Do list before you go to bed. Planning your day also helps clear your mind so you’ll fall asleep easier, too.
2. Analyze the impact. Figure out the most significant items on your To Do list and make those your priorities for the day. You can identify which tasks are priorities by thinking about the impact they’ll have on your life if you don’t finish them.
• Tasks that must or can only be done that day: Things that, if you let them slide, will have unpleasant and unavoidable consequences. If today’s the deadline, it MUST be a priority. Example: paying a speeding ticket; returning a library book; responding to an angry client’s email.
• Tasks that significantly improve your peace of mind: Nuisances in life that, when left untended, pile up and drain the joy out of you. Tackle just one a day, every day, and watch your life grow peaceful. Example: getting the trash out of your car; fixing the leaky faucet; calling your doctor to get that mole examined.
• Tasks that further your life goals: If you’re working toward something (or wish you had the time to), make it a priority to accomplish something toward your goal each day. Example: schedule exercise time if you’re trying to lose weight; sit down and practice for 20 minutes if you’re learning how to play the piano; work on your budget for 30 minutes if you’re trying to save for a big purchase.
3. Claim your free time. You are most in control of your life in the morning. True, you may have to deal with kids who dawdle or a nightmare commute to work, but who said your mornings have to start with that? Waking up BEFORE your kids, rather than TO them, gives you time to tackle priority tasks. On the other hand, leaving priorities until later in the day usually results in some pseudo-emergency taking over your schedule. Don’t let that happen. Commit to motivating yourself in the morning.
4. Rely on routines. Routines take care of things before they become problems. Readers of this blog know I’m a fan of following a daily cleaning routine for this exact reason: 20 minutes buzzing through the house keeps things under control between more thorough weekly cleanings. An exercise routine accomplishes the same thing, energizing the body while allowing the mind to de-stress. Bill-paying routines on the 15th and 30th keep creditors at bay. Homework routines keep kids from surprising you at 10 PM with a Science Fair project due the next morning.
5. Just say NO. Once you’ve got your plan for the day, guard it fiercely by saying “NO!” to other interruptions (though the exclamation is optional). If it’s not a deadline or if it doesn’t put your family, job, or finances at risk, then it’s not essential to do it that very day. Schedule it for another time or decline it altogether. Might this hurt someone’s feelings? Possibly, but over-committing will hurt you by zapping your time and energy, eventually leading to resentment that will jeopardize that relationship, anyway.
6. Burst then break. Faced with a To Do list it’s tempting to plow through it in one go, but that’s counterproductive. Focusing on a task for too long causes a loss in performance as our energy flags and we become less aware of what we’re doing. The solution is working in bursts of 20-30 minutes then taking a short break. Breaks help us refocus and often lead to breakthroughs as renewed energy brings a different perspective. That’s why the Pomodoro Technique, which alternates 25-minute bursts with 2-3 minute breaks, is so popular among productive people.
7. One thing at a time. Multitasking is tempting, but hard to do well. Sure, it might make you feel super productive, but usually the results are sub-par. Imagine trying to study a foreign language while your child talks to you, or practicing piano scales while you’re on a conference call: though you might pick up bits and pieces, your brain wouldn’t be able to comprehend everything very well. Give important, non-routine tasks your full attention in bursts interrupted by breaks, and you’ll do a better job.
8. Work on autopilot. The exception to the multitasking rule involves things you’re so used to doing that you can perform them on autopilot. Talking with a friend on the phone while chopping vegetables is an example. Or doing one-minute chores while waiting for your kids to get dressed for school. Using idle moments can really boost your productivity.
9. Stop chasing likes. You’ve heard it before: social media is killing your productivity. Yes, it provides emotional validation and a feeling of being connected with the rest of the world, but it does so at the cost of accomplishing the goals you’ve set for the day. Few things happen online that can’t wait 3 or even 6 hours for your attention, so turn off those notifications and stay off of Facebook and Twitter until you’ve accomplished your To Do list for the day. Your friends will still be there.
10. Try the 2-minute rule. Once you’ve accomplished your priority tasks, take a glance at the rest of your To Do list. If there’s something that will take just 2 minutes or less, do it next. Finished your entire To Do list and discovered something else that needs to be done? Do it right that moment if it can be done in less than two minutes. Example: sign your child’s field trip permission slip; refill the liquid hand soap pump; gather the old magazines on the coffee table and chuck them in the recycling bin. (Note: do NOT interrupt other tasks to do something else that takes less than 2 minutes.)
11. Trap random tasks. You’ve accomplished everything on your To Do list and performed some other tasks because they took less than 2 minutes, but now it’s evening, and you’d like to take a break. Should you keep going? Of course not! The ultimate purpose of this productivity is to create time for you to relax and enjoy life. When you’re done for the day (or trying to fall asleep) and a random task pops into your head, trap it by jotting it down on tomorrow’s list. Trapping random tasks on a list means you don’t have to get right on it, but you won’t forget about it, either. (See Making a Master To Do List for advice on putting this to work for you.)
12. Make sleep sacred. Getting enough sleep should probably be the #1 rule because good sleep — and enough of it — is crucial. If you aren’t rested your brain won’t process information as quickly, your focus will suffer, and you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed with the day’s tasks. You need at least 7 hours of sleep, so figure out what time you have to get up to be motivated in the morning (see #3) and count back seven hours. Then — and this is the important part — go to bed at that time!
Now, if you have infants who don’t yet sleep through the night then don’t worry about how to get more done every day. It’s okay to be less productive at this time in your life — you’re already accomplishing an amazing feat by raising a new little human! This stage will pass and, before you know it, they’ll be back to disrupting your sleep by coming home late from prom.